American folk music revival: Wikis

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The American folk music revival was a phenomenon in the United States in the 1950s to mid-1960s. Its roots went earlier, and performers like Burl Ives, Woody Guthrie, and Cisco Houston had enjoyed a limited general popularity in decades prior to the 1950s. The revival brought forward musical styles that had, in earlier times, contributed to the development of country & western, jazz, and rock and roll music.

Contents

Overview

Pete Seeger entertaining Eleanor Roosevelt, honored guest at a racially integrated Valentine's Day party marking the opening a Canteen of the United Federal Labor, CIO, in then-segregated Washington, D.C. Photographed by Joseph Horne for the Office of War Information, 1944.[1]

The folk revival is closely associated with the career of The Weavers, formed in November of 1948 by Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Ronnie Gilbert of People's Songs, of which Seeger had been president and Hays executive secretary. People's Songs, which disbanded in 1948-49, had been a clearing house for labor movement songs (and in particular, the CIO, which at the time was one of the few if not the only union that was racially integrated), and in 1948 had thrown all its resources to the failed presidential campaign of Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, a folk music aficionado (his running mate was a country music singer-guitarist). Hays and Seeger had formerly sung together as the politically activist Almanac Singers, a group which they founded in 1941 and whose personnel later included Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, and Bess Lomax Hawes. The Weavers had a big hit in 1950 with the single of Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene". This was number one on the Billboard charts for many months. On its flip side was Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, an Israeli dance song that concurrently reached number two on the charts. This was followed by a string of Weaver hit singles that sold millions, including "So Long It's Been Good to Know You" (by Woody Guthrie) and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine". The Weavers' career ended abruptly when they were dropped from Decca's catalog because Pete Seeger had been listed in the publication Red Channels as a probable subversive. Radio stations refused to play their records and concert venues canceled their engagements. A former employee of People's Songs, Harvey Matusow, himself a former Communist Party member, had informed the FBI that the Weavers were Communists, too, although Matsuow later recanted and admitted he had lied. Pete Seeger and Lee Hays were called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. Despite this, a Christmas Weaver reunion concert in 1955 was a smash success and the Vanguard LP album of that concert, issued in 1957, was one of the top sellers of that year, followed by other smash albums.

Folk music, which carried the stigma of left-wing associations during the 1950s Red Scare, was driven underground and carried along by a handful of artists releasing records. Artists like Seeger performed in schools and summer camps, and the folk-music scene became a a phenomenon associated with hip bohemianism in places like New York City (especially Greenwich Village), North Beach, and in the college and university districts of cities like Chicago, Boston, Denver, and elsewhere.

In the 1950s and after, accoustic-guitar-accompanied folk songs could be heard in coffee houses, private parties, open-air concerts, and sing-alongs, and at college-campus concerts. Associated with political dissent, folk music blended, to some degree, with the so-called beatnik scene; and dedicated singers of folk songs (as well as folk-influenced original material) traveled through what was called "the coffee-house circuit" across the U.S. and Canada, home also to cool jazz and recitations of highly personal beatnik poetry. It was not long before the folk music category came to include less traditional material and more personal and poetic creations by individual performers, who called themselves "singer-songwriters". Two singers of the 1950s who sang folk material but crossed over into the mainstream were Odetta and Harry Belafonte, both of whom sang Lead Belly material. Odetta, who had trained as an opera singer, performed traditional blues, spirituals, and songs by Lead Belly. Belafonte had hits with Jamaican calypso material as well as the folk-song like sentimental ballad "Scarlet Ribbons" (composed in 1949).

The Kingston Trio, a group originating on the West Coast, were directly inspired by the Weavers in their style and presentation and covered much of the Weaver's material, which was predominantly traditional. The Kingston Trio avoided overtly political or protest songs and cultivated a clean-cut, collegiate persona. They were discovered while playing at a college club called the Cracked Pot by Frank Werber, who became their manager and secured them a deal with Capitol Records. Their first hit was a catchy rendition of an old-time folk murder ballad, "Tom Dooley", which had been sung at Lead Belly's funeral concert. This went gold in 1958. The following year, the group won the first Grammy Award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording category for the album The Kingston Trio At Large. At one point late in 1959 , The Kingston Trio had four records at the same time among the Top 10 selling albums according to Billboard Magazine's "Top Ten Albums" chart for the week of December 7, 1959, a record unmatched for more than 50 years and noted at the time by a cover story in Life Magazine.

The Kingston Trio's popularity would be followed by that of Joan Baez, whose debut album Joan Baez, reached the top ten in late 1960 and remained on the Billboard charts for over two years. Baez's early albums contained mostly traditional material, including many covers of melancholy ballads that had appeared in Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, such as "The Waggoner's Lad" and "The Butcher Boy", and the Scottish ballad, "Mary Hamilton". She did not try to imitate the singing style of her source material, however, but used a rich soprano with vibrato. Her popularity (and that of the folk revival itself) would place Baez on the cover of Time Magazine in November 1962. Baez, unlike the Kingston Trio, was openly political, and as the civil rights movement gathered steam, aligned herself with Pete Seeger, Guthrie and others. She was on of the singers, along with Seeger, who appeared at Martin Luther Kings 1963 March on Washington and sang "We Shall Overcome", a song that had been introduced by People's Songs. Harry Belafonte was also present on that occasion, along with Odetta, whom Martin Luther King introduced as "the queen of folk music", when she sang "Oh, Freedom" (Odetta Sings Folk Songs was one of 1963's best-selling folk albums). Also on hand were the SNCC Freedom Singers, the personnel of which went on to form Sweet Honey in the Rock.

In the early 1960s as civil rights activism gained traction in the South, the contemporary-songwriter and folk-music scene during these times frequently reflected social concerns. The increasingly unpopular Vietnam War and the atomic arms race also inspired protest music. Young singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, playing acoustic guitar and harmonica, had been signed and recorded for Columbia by producer John Hammond in 1961. Dylan's record enjoyed some popularity in the Greenwich Village folk-music cult, but he was "discovered" by an immensely larger audience when a pop-folk-music group, Peter, Paul & Mary had a hit with his song "Blowing in the Wind". Their songs often shared in the humanitarianism and social idealism of the Weavers, and a few of the earlier folk-scene notables, and this and other songs by Dylan fitted the bill.

Dylan’s general popularity was soon so great that record companies began to sign, and distribute records for, many new, young, singer/songwriters – Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Eric von Schmidt, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dave Van Ronk, Judy Collins, Tom Rush, Fred Neil, Gordon Lightfoot, Billy Ed Wheeler, John Denver, Arlo Guthrie, John Hartford, and others, among them. Some of this wave had emerged from family singing and playing traditions, and some had not. These singers frequently prided themselves on performing traditional material in imitations of the style of the source singers whom they had discovered by listening to compilations consisting of reissues of older recordings, such as Harry Smith's Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music.

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Archivists, collectors, and re-issued recordings

During these same years, the devoted and growing folk-music crowd that had developed in the United States began to want and to buy records by now obscure older folk musicians, from the Southeastern hill country and from urban inner-cities. LP records made up of re-issue collections of commercial 78-rpm race and hillbilly records (commercial studio recordings) stretching back to the 1920s and 1930s. Also becoming available were LP-record collections made from original folk-music field recordings originally made by ethnomusicologists in the 1930s and later afficionados. Small record labels, such as Yazoo Records, grew up to distribute reissued older recordings and to make new recordings of the survivors among these artists. This was how many white Americans first heard country blues and especially Delta blues, that had been recorded by Mississippi folk artists 30 or 40 years before.

Artists like the Carter Family, Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Clarence Ashley, Buell Kazee, Uncle Dave Macon, Mississippi John Hurt, and the Stanley Brothers, as well as Jimmie Rodgers, the Reverend Gary Davis, and Bill Monroe came to have something more than a regional or ethnic reputation. The revival turned up a tremendous wealth and diversity of music and put it out through radio shows and record stores.

Living representatives of some of the varied regional and ethnic traditions, including younger performers like Southern-tradition singer Jean Ritchie, enjoyed popularity through enthusiasts' widening discovery of this music.

Rock subsumes folk

After the darling of the young enthusiasts, Bob Dylan, began to record with a rocking rhythm section and electric instruments in 1965 (see Electric Dylan controversy), many other still-young folk artists followed suit. Meanwhile, bands like The Lovin' Spoonful and the Byrds, whose individual members often had a background in the folk-revival coffee-house scene, were getting recording contracts with folk-tinged music played with a rock-band line-up. Before long, the public appetite for the more acoustic music of the folk revival began to wane.

"Crossover" hits ("folk songs" that became rock-music-scene staples) happened now and again. One well-known example is the song "Hey Joe", copyrighted by folk artist Billy Roberts, and recorded by rock singer/guitarist Jimi Hendrix just as he was about to burst into stardom in 1967. The anthem "Woodstock" was written and first sung and accompanied on keyboard by Joni Mitchell while her records were still nearly entirely acoustic, and while she was labeled a "folk singer" receiving big airplay when Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded a folk-rock version.

Legacy

By the late 1960s, the scene had returned to being more of a lower-key, aficionado phenomenon, although sizable annual acoustic-music festivals were established in many parts of North America during this period. The acoustic music coffee-house scene survived at a reduced scale. Through the luminary young singer-songwriters of the 1960s, the American folk-music revival has influenced songwriting and musical styles throughout the world.

Major figures

  • Burl Ives - as a youth, Ives dropped out of college to travel around as an itinerant singer during the early 1930s, earning his way by doing odd jobs and playing his banjo. In 1930 he had a brief, local radio career on WBOW radio in Terre Haute, Indiana, and in the 1940s he had his own radio show, titled The Wayfaring Stranger, titled after one of the popular ballads he sang. The show was very popular, and in 1946 Ives was cast as a singing cowboy in the film Smoky. Ives went on to play parts in other popular films, as well. His first book, The Wayfaring Stranger, was published in 1948.
  • Pete Seeger had met, and been influenced, by many important folk musicians (and singer-songwriters with folk roots), such as Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. Seeger had labor movement involvements, and he met Woody at a "Grapes of Wrath" migrant workers’ concert on March 3, 1940, and the two thereafter began a musical collaboration (which included the Almanac Singers). In 1948 Seeger wrote the first version of his now-classic How to Play the Five-String Banjo, an instructional book that many banjo players credit with starting them off on the instrument.
  • The Weavers were formed in 1947 by Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, and Fred Hellerman. A fifth member, Erik Darling, sometimes sat in with the group when Seeger was unavailable. After a period of finding themselves unable to find much, if any paid work, they finally achieved a performance slot at the Village Vanguard in New York. They were then discovered by arranger Gordon Jenkins, and were signed with Decca Records.
  • Josh White was an authentic singer of rural blues and folk music, a man who had been born into abject conditions in South Carolina during the Jim Crow years. As a young black singer, he was initially dubbed “the Singing Christian” (he sang some Gospel songs, and was the son of a preacher), but also recorded blues songs under the name Pinewood Tom. Later discovered by John H. Hammond and groomed for both stage performance and a major-label recording career, his repertoire expanded to include urban blues, jazz, and gleanings from a broad folk repertoire, in addition to rural blues and gospel. Josh White gained a very wide following in the 1940s and had a huge influence on later blues artists and groups, as well as the general folk-music scene. His pro-justice and civil-rights stance provoked harsh treatment during the suspicious HUAC era, seriously harming his performing career in the ‘50s, and keeping him off TV until 1963. In folk-music circles, however, he retained respect and was admired both as a musical hero and a link with the Southern rural-blues and gospel traditions.
  • Harry Belafonte, another influential singer, started his career as a club singer in New York to pay for his acting classes. At first he was a pop singer, but later he developed a keen interest in folk music. In 1952 he signed a contract with RCA Victor. His breakthrough album Calypso (1956) was the first LP to sell over a million copies. The album spent 31 weeks at number one, 58 weeks in the top ten, and 99 weeks on the US charts. It introduced American audiences to Calypso music and Belafonte was dubbed the "King of Calypso." Belafonte went on to record in many genres, including blues, American folk, gospel, etc.
  • Odetta - As an example of the more obscure among the early notables, starting in 1953 singers Odetta and Larry Mohr recorded some songs, with the LP being released in 1954 as Odetta and Larry, an album that was partially recorded live at San Francisco's Tin Angel bar. For Odetta, it began a period of great respect and a sort of underground reputation associated with a repertoire of traditional songs (e.g., spirituals) and blues covers.
Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the March on Washington, 1963
  • Joan Baez’s career got started in 1958 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where at 17 she gave her first coffee-house concert. She was invited to perform at the 1959 Newport Folk Festival, after which Baez was sometimes called “the barefoot Madonna," gaining renown for her clear voice and three-octave range. She recorded her first album for a major label the following year – a collection of laments and traditional folk ballads from the British Isles, accompanying the songs with guitar. Her second LP release went gold, as did her next (live) albums. One record featured her rendition of a song by the then-unknown Bob Dylan. In the early 1960s, Baez moved into the forefront of the American folk-music revival. Increasingly, her personal convictions – peace, social justice, anti-poverty – were reflected in the topical songs that made up a growing portion of her repertoire, to the point that Baez became a symbol for these particular concerns.
  • Bob Dylan often performed, and sometimes toured, with Joan Baez, starting when she was a singer of mostly traditional songs. As Baez adopted some of Dylan's songs into her repertoire and even introduced Dylan to her avid audiences, a large following on the folk circuit, it helped the young songwriter to gain initial recognition. By the time Dylan recorded his first LP (1962) he had developed a style reminiscent of Woody Guthrie. He began to write songs that captured the "progressive" mood on the college campuses and in the coffee houses. Though by 1964 there were many new guitar-playing singer/songwriters, it is arguable that Dylan eventually became the most popular of these younger folk-music-revival performers.

Ethnicity

Books such as the very popular best seller, the Fireside Book of Folk Songs (1947), which helped spark the folk song revival, featured a fair amount of material in languages other than English, including German, Spanish, Italian, French, Yiddish, and Russian. The repertoires of Theodore Bikel, Marais and Miranda, and Martha Schlamme also included Hebrew and Jewish material, as well as Afrikaans. The Weavers' first big hit, the flipside of Lead Belly's "Good Night Irene", and a top selling it its own right, was in Hebrew (Tzena, Tzena, Tzena) and they, and later Joan Baez, who was of Spanish descent, occasionally included Spanish-language material in their repertoires. The more commercially oriented folk-music revival in North America after the 1960s (as it existed in the coffee houses, concert halls, and radio and TV), however, was predominantly an English-language phenomenon. In that sense, it bypassed a lot of ethnic folk traditions to be found in North America (e.g., Italian, French, Portuguese, German, Polish, Russian) and Finnish), except in a small proportion of instances where songs’ lyrics had been translated into English.

See also

Notes

  1. ^ From the Washington Post, Feb 12 1944: "The Labor Canteen, sponsored by the United Federal Workers of America, CIO, will be opened at 8 p.m. tomorrow at 1212 18th st. nw. Mrs. Roosevelt is expected to attend at 8:30 p.m."

Bibliography

  • Cantwell, Robert. When We Were Good: The Folk Revival. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-674-95132-8
  • Cohen, Ronald D. Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival & American Society, 1940-1970. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002). ISBN 1-55849-348-4
  • Cohen, Ronald D., ed. Wasn't That a Time? Firsthand Accounts of the Folk Music Revival. American Folk Music Series no. 4. Lanham, Maryland and Folkstone, UK: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 1995.
  • Cohen, Ronald D., and Dave Samuelson. Songs for Political Action. Booklet to Bear Family Records BCD 15720 JL, 1996.
  • Cray, Ed, and Studs Terkel. Ramblin Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie. W.W. Norton & Co., 2006.
  • Cunningham, Agnes "Sis", and Gordon Friesen. Red Dust and Broadsides: A Joint Autobiography. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999) ISBN 1-55849-210-0
  • Denisoff, R. Serge. Great Day Coming: Folk Music and the American Left. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971.
  • Denisoff, R. Serge. Sing Me a Song of Social Significance. Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1972. ISBN 0-87972-036-0
  • Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. London: Verso, 1996.
  • Dunaway, David. How Can I Keep From Singing: The Ballad of Pete Seeger. [1981, 1990] Villard, 2008. ISBN 0-306-80399-2
  • Eyerman, Ron, and Scott Barretta. "From the 30s to the 60s: The folk Music Revival in the United States". Theory and Society: 25 (1996): 501-43.
  • Eyerman, Ron, and Andrew Jamison. Music and Social Movements. Mobilizing Traditions in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge University Press, 1998. ISBN 0-521-62966-7
  • Filene, Benjamin. Romancing the Folk: Public Memory & American Roots Music. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000. ISBN 0-8078-4862-X
  • Goldsmith, Peter D. Making People's Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998. ISBN 1-56098-812-6
  • Hajdu, David. Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña. New York: North Point Press, 2001. ISBN 0-86547-642-X
  • Hawes, Bess Lomax. Sing It Pretty. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008
  • Jackson, Bruce, ed. Folklore and Society. Essay in Honor of Benjamin A. Botkin. Hatboro, Pa Folklore Associates, 1966
  • Lieberman, Robbie. "My Song Is My Weapon:" People's Songs, American Communism, and the Politics of Culture, 1930-50. 1989; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995). ISBN 0-252-06525-5
  • Lomax, Alan, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, eds. Hard Hit Songs for Hard Hit People. New York: Oak Publications, 1967. Reprint, Lincoln University of Nebraska Press, 1999.
  • Lynch, Timothy. Strike Song of the Depression (American Made Music Series). Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
  • Reuss, Richard, with [finished posthumously by] Joanne C. Reuss. American Folk Music and Left Wing Politics. 1927-1957. American Folk Music Series no. 4. Lanham, Maryland and Folkstone, UK: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2000.
  • Scully, Michael F. The Never-Ending Revival: Rounder Records and the Folk Alliance. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008.[1]
  • Seeger, Pete. Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Singer's Stories. Bethlehem, Pa.: Sing Out Publications, 1993.
  • Willens, Doris. Lonesome Traveler: The Life of Lee Hays. New York: Norton, 1988.
  • Weissman, Dick. Which Side Are You On? An Inside History of the Folk Music Revival in America. New York: Continuum, 2005. ISBN 0-8264-1698-5
  • Wolfe, Charles, and Kip Lornell. The Life and Legend of Leadbelly. New York: Da Capo [1992] 1999.

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